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VOA reporters say Trump appointee puts journalists at risk

It's the first time VOA reporters issued an on-the-record protest of Michael Pack, Trump's pick to run the U.S. Agency for Global Media.
The Voice of America building in Washington on July 13, 2020.Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — A group of veteran reporters for the Voice of America wrote a letter of protest on Monday against the new CEO of the parent agency that oversees the broadcaster, Michael Pack, accusing him of putting the lives of journalists at risk.

The letter marks the first time reporters at VOA have issued an on-the-record complaint over Pack's management since he took over as CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media in June. Pack's tenure has sparked anger in Congress on both sides of the aisle and prompted accusations that he is trying to turn U.S.-funded news media into a mouthpiece for President Donald Trump.

The letter, addressed to VOA's acting director Elez Biberaj, was signed by 14 reporters, including journalists who cover the White House, national security and who work as bureau chiefs overseas.

The journalists expressed "profound disappointment" at Pack's actions and comments that "endanger the personal security of VOA reporters at home and abroad, as well as threatening to harm U.S. national security objectives."

The letter singled out Pack's decision not to renew visas for some foreign nationals employed in the VOA newsroom, saying it would force some of them to return to repressive countries.

"He has ordered the firing of contract journalists, with no valid reason, by cancelling their visas, forcing them back to home countries where the lives of some of them may be in jeopardy," the letter said.

The reporters also cited Pack's remarks on a recent podcast posted on the conservative website The Federalist, in which he joked about shutting off air conditioning and prohibiting masks in VOA's building in Washington amid a global pandemic.

"Just as concerning are Mr. Pack's public comments, including bantering with a podcast host about turning off the air conditioning and banning masks inside VOA's headquarters, as part of his effort to 'drain the swamp.'"

Pack also said on the podcast that he was working to ensure staff at the agency were properly vetted, arguing that previous leadership had mismanaged security clearances.

"It's a great place to put a foreign spy," Pack said. He didn’t cite any examples of suspected spies.

U.S. Agency for Global Media chief executive Michael Pack.
U.S. Agency for Global Media chief executive Michael Pack.U.S. Agency for Global Media

The CEO, who has worked on documentary projects with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, told the podcast that VOA and other U.S.-funded media have failed to live up to their mission to produce balanced, objective coverage. He didn’t cite examples of bias, but had previously referred to problems with the Urdu language service.

The U.S. Agency for Global Media did not respond to requests for comment.

After taking the helm in June, Pack has fired all the heads of the four news outlets under his agency as well as the members of the bipartisan boards that governed them. Pack replaced the boards mostly with political appointees of the Trump administration, and named himself as chairman. He reassigned an editor for standards at VOA and sacked the executive editor of Radio Free Asia.

Earlier this month, Pack suspended seven senior executives.

"We have watched in dismay as USAGM executives have been dismissed for, in their words, attempting to educate the new CEO on avoiding legal violations, as well as guiding him on the firewall that protects VOA's legally mandated editorial independence," the letter said.